Saturday, December 3, 2011

Things I Have Done

It appears to be December. How this has come to pass is beyond me. A year in which not a lot of making got done due to other revenue raising activities, but quite a lot of exhibition visiting has occurred, including a fair bit interstate.

The Secessionist exhib at NGV was fantastic. The paintings not so much but the objects - well. As much as anything the chance to see the things in the flesh, get down on hands and knees, peer underneath. There was a set of flatware that almost made me reconsider my atheist ways. And had just finished reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes which provided an unexpected narrative to the show.

And then MONA. In Hobart. This was a strange trip as I went to school there for some years, and then started off as an arts (humanities) undergrad at the venerable Univ of Tas. I hadn't visited since 1986; well not the southern half of the state at any rate. I was astonished at how little it had changed. Yes, whole hillsides have been devoured by subdivisions down at Kingston, and suburbia now snakes its way southerly on the Eastern shore; but change in the manner that Sydney so readily does? Changes that leave you struck by vertigo with whole streetscapes erased. No, Hobart hadn't indulged in architectural cleansing. There are a few atrocious bits and pieces but on the whole, the damage has been minimal.

There were some outward indications of more affluence in suburbs where you wouldn't have publicly whispered "cafe latte" in decades past. But I was struck by the number of homeless people on the streets of the city centre - Hobart is not a city you would want to sleep unhoused in, but rental prices are as elsewhere high, particularly given Tasmania's lower average wages than anywhere else in Australia. I would imagine the competition for affordable rental would be fierce. Or are support services lacking?

Needless to say, none of the homeless people were to be seen at MONA. Although I was highly amused by a moment when standing in the queue to enter. Tasmanians get free entry, the rest of us have to pay $20. But in something like a scene from our own carefully staged Chaucer play, a group of 5 young Chigwell residents, resplendent in uggs, tight jeans, even tighter t-shirts, flannies, spilt out into the daylight noisily fuck this fuck like brightly dyed sparrows, past the scandalised tourists and out to their hotted up Torana.

There is a very strong sense of Am I Bovvered about the whole exercise. It is a private collection. Housed in a huge purpose built space which allows the public to visit. The winery, brewery, an Antiquities Museum now subsumed and pavilions pre-date MONA, as Walsh bought a going concern about 15 years ago (I think) so there is evidence it is a serious financial endeavour. An enormous amount of money has been spent - on architecture, set up and works. It is within Australia an astonishing thing. Rich people usually buy art and hang it on the board room walls or in the weekender at Church Point. Public access? I think not.

It's also contemporary in focus. Yes yes old and new, but the old pieces became decorative, the new defined the word art, at least within range of the MONA ipods. Some pieces aren't too flash. There's a Damien Hirst with which I struggle to engage with his pomo irony, and found just plain crappy. But there are some standouts which will still work in 15 or 50 years. Even when they are no longer new.

Which is at the heart of the problem. New. New has a meaning = to be of the now, the present. As does old. I will be very curious as to how the museum shuffles its cards when the new starts to resemble an aging American.

The other point that intrigued me was Walsh's wee dalliance with class revenge. Yes the setting is by a river, in a city that is too pretty for its own good. And yes he bought it as a going winery probably well before the idea of a museum came up. If you owned that site already it makes sense. But rub rub rub, it's in Chigwell. Sorry - fucking Chigwell. OK Berriedale, but Chigwell sits behind it, leering down from its clusters of poorly built public housing. Upriver sits the Cadbury factory which is not some benign Willy Wonka Wonderland but a factory complex that glows, thumps, grinds and outgases with furious regularity. Downstream sits the old EZ smelter which no longer pumps heavy metals into the air and water, but makes fertilisers instead. Which is slightly less polluting. And on the northern side of the point that MONA is built upon sits a very large sewerage works. Discreetly behind tea trees hedges and fences, inaudible but olfactorily present when the wind blows right.

Bilbao and even Cockatoo Island have succeeded in assuring the middle classes that grimy industrial visages can be fun. But I suspect Walsh isn't about ironic intent - I think its a huge FUCK YOU flip of the bird. Working class antipathy to the middle and ruling classes in Tasmania is only matched by the near hysteria that pervades how thems that have view those that haven't. As someone who did time in the housing commission estates Walsh escaped, got educated and worse still made a hell of a lot of money. And then took to buying art; but not good art, oh no, not stolid Dutch masters or Papunya or Warhols by the roomful but modern art, contemporary art. Art so new the connoisseurs haven't worked out the con bit yet. What a dilemma. How or what are the chattering classes to think? And you have to go to him. All on his terms. Into a space that cuts you off from the day, plunges you into a high camp drama of dark corners, glimpsed illuminations, unlabelled works, disconnected walkways, illogical lifts, and a bar stocked with booze to lift the spirit or drown the sorrow, which ever may be your personal fancy. Like walking into the Hellfire Club for the first time really.

Should you visit it? Absolutely. If nothing else to dip your lid to a bloke who has done something none of the other monied types have done on such a scale. But it also points to the inadequacy of the contemporary art collections amongst our major collecting institutions.

Today I spent a half the day touring around with a co-Art School Survivor stickybeaking at the grad show at ANU as well as Craft ACT. Can't say this year's grad show is the best I've seen. Sculpture seemed to be the most interesting really which is always a worry, though the sausage sizzle installation was beyond reproach. Then off to Craft ACT which had an exhibition on called Elements. I'm not quite sure why of five pieces only 1 is a new work. Let's just say that Julie Ryder show, Companion Planting dealing with the work generated by her artist-in-residence at Hill End was just as wonderful and fab as her exhibitions always are. My colleague in art crime remarked that of all the craftspeople she has met or dealt with (and that's a lot) Julia is the epitome of professional, dedicated and with a constantly evolving practice. Go and see it. There were 3 pieces in the show that my response to was to do a little jig. You know that jig - the excited oh my god jig. And I still hadn't realised the show was Julie's at that point. So off you go.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Location, location, location.

It is the fourth day of winter, by the strange conventions that we non-Indigenous Australians continue to carry as so many imprinted Northerners. I am sitting in a t-shirt hastily bought at the West End markets. A light breeze is working up from the south east, I cannot see a cloud and the air temperature is 23.3 degrees.

I've been transported to Brisbane for a conference and have gone from Canberra experimenting with a winter of -7 degrees, a sun that doesn't rise til after 7, and the view from my kitchen window filled with the skeletal hope of deciduous trees. There is something miraculous about a day that orders you to strip off jumpers, coats, a day that cannot even imagine bone numbing cold.

So a day to wander, note, poke about. My principal reason for staying over into today was to see the Lloyd Rees drawing exhib at the Qld Art Gallery. So I've just had the enormous pleasure of pouring over what is actually a small show of largely early drawings which he drew as a young man finding his way of seeing. Conservative certainly, they have an Edwardian aesthetic combined with that easy skill of perspective righteousness, but Rees managed even in those earliest of drawings to do something with an sure deftness - to draw light.

I'm not a huge fan of his paintings, but his architectural drawings, yes. What paper did he use? Did he scumble his shadows or draw them in? Did he rub off shading to pull the light through? How fine a point did he use to define the edge where a form turns and breaks into shadow?
The drawing at the top of the post isn't in the show - its from the decade after he had left Brisbane and taken his first trip to Europe, but his drawing style still has that tone of sheer joy at what a pencil mark on a page can make. A lot of architectural drawing is flat on the page, static, numbingly tedious in its fussy detail, vague in its technique and sense of place. Rees is rarely pedestrian; there is always a nugget of joy at the play of light and shadow in the most flippant of his sketches.

There's a small drawing about 120mm high of a statue of a matriarchal Queen Victoria - sceptre in hand, double chin and matronly cap. I don't know the statue - presumably it's still here somewhere in Brisbane, marooned on a street corner by 8 lanes of traffic, but I'd imagine it's like hundreds of cast Victorias scattered throughout the cities and towns of a grateful Empire - heavy folds and weighted cast Queens on stone plinths. Dull, dulled, light absorbing, an object you would walk past without regard to its changing form as the light moves across and around it. But Rees had drawn this Queen drenched in Australian light - an exquisite exercise in the play of light, defined by lines and nuanced pressure of the pencil on the paper. Perhaps in a city of low rise buildings as Brisbane of the second decade of the twentieth century would have been, a small grey woman looking for all the world like Toad's washerwoman cast in bronze, would have sat bleaching in the sun but it surprises me to see her rendered drenched in light instead of glowering from the gloomy shadows in our CBDs.

From the snaps above, you might work out I'm now sitting at the cafe at GOMA. Brisbane friends were certain I'd enjoy it. The building yes but I'm a bit bewildered by a gallery that seemed largely empty. I'm still not quite sure if I somehow missed the major galleries by taking the wrong staircase or exit. I have a sneaking suspicion it's a building in need of a collection. Though you have to admire the chutzpah of building the field of dreams, assuming they will come. Given the behaviour of the Brisbane River earlier in the year, I'm not quite so sure that placing all of your major collections beside such an unruly body of water is such a good idea. But I will say that the damage to this part of the river environs is not obvious to a tourist or anywhere else I've been around Brisbane over the last couple of days - where did all the mud go to?

I find Brisbane quite geographically confusing as its modern form seems to play scant attention to its river setting with freeways running along river banks and tall buildings walling the city into a play of sections and quarters. Developers are eyeing off West End with 30 storey apartment blocks in the offing for an area inner Melbourne-like in its scale but Brisbane in its casual opening to the street. And yet again this will be to the east and north of West End's high street, with more shadows engulfing our communal spaces. What planners think they are doing when they approve such sitings beggars belief - Dickson shopping precinct in Canberra has just had its new master plan released which has a fine collection of ominous grey shaded blocks marked "6 storey development" along the northern side of the precinct. Presumably they have not ventured out of their over heated offices during a Canberra winter into a windswept over-shadowed public space.

As the afternoon pulls into its lateness, the light is flattening, dropping to glare off the horizon. It will be late when I get back to Canberra. Late and cold. Late, cold and dark. A winter city in a southern clime.

Monday, March 14, 2011

As the bearer of a trade certificate in French Polishing (among other things), it is with much mirth I gaze upon the latest snide captioning from Unhappy Hipsters.

Another Sunday morning spent whisking small batches of artisanal wood stains so they might continue darkening the floor, one six-inch-square at a time.

(Photo: Misha Gravenor; Dwell)

This is being typed sitting at my kitchen table, which might seem a small thing to you, but after 5 days of round and round in circles with my new ISP and the Netgear people, being tethered to a modem by an ethernet cable had lost its allure well and truly. Especially as the person who had TransACT install the cable put the plug in the main bedroom. Not the most convenient place to work; fine for re-runs of QI at 3am when unable to sleep, but not terrbily handy for Being Productive.

But for reasons I cannot begin to fathom, my "fiddling" with something to do with the Netgear protocols via has worked. Of course I can't ever turn either the modem or wireless router off for fear of losing whatever it is that I have done, but this is a small price to pay when the other option is a trailing 10 metre ethernet cable.

And whilst in techy mode, dear Abode, please do not include stripped down bits of McAfee security programs in your Adobe Reader updates. As a thinking human being I am about as likely to want to use any McAfee product as I am to write a character reference for Mr Gaddafi. Avast and AVG work just fine thanks.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Revisiting the past country

I grew up in Tasmania. I am not however a Tasmanian, having not been born there nor having any family connections - this is an important distinction; perhaps more so during my childhood when Tasmanian parochialism was only outshone by Hobart vs Launceston rivalry, or Burnie vs Devonport, or Queenstown vs the entire universe. I left in the early 1980s and only rarely go back to visit a sister who still lives there. For the first time in about 30 years, I went there during summer.

What continually astonishes me is the myriad of variations on landscape, ecosystems, light, colour, twilight, shadow each small locale throws up. The first three photos are from Low Head, which is on the eastern mouth of the Tamar, on the seaward side facing Bass Strait. Although the Strait is rightly respected as a treacherous stretch of water, its colours and nature where it makes its littoral shores from Woolnorth to Cape Portland in the east is grey, mauve, so often leaden light, tufts of shore grass leaning in the wind. Perhaps because the clouds hang low, there is a sense of human scale to much of that maritime landscape.

Perhaps even English or British. I had forgotten that Tasmania is home to a gull, Larus pacificus, that is much larger than the silver gull that patrols every town tip from Bega to Alice Springs. The Pacific gull meows, something close to the crying of gulls in English ports; always an aural shock in that first hearing, more reserved than the incessant screeching of silver gulls. Dotterels, plovers, oyster catchers run on the rocks and beaches; clinker built wooden dinghies lie above the high tide mark, half buried in the shore grass. Low Head also has a number of small shingle beaches to the north of the main beach, where basalt flows make small headlands, crisscrossed by the rusting wire fences of those who believe they own the land.

Rosevears sits on the Tamar, about half way between Launceston and its mouth at Low Head. There is a pub that sits in the crook of the road looking upriver to Gravelly Beach or across the estuary to Windermere on the opposite shore. After a couple of visits you learn not to try and sit to snatch the whole view of the river but to frame a smaller portion, to savour the light, the pulse and beat of the river, the wind on the water and grasses, the hum of farming in the small fields that roll into the road and the river.

Binalong Bay sits east of St Helens, a fishing village turned retirement mecca itself at the end of Georges Bay. Binalong was originally known as Boat Harbour, an odd name for a series of rocky gulchs that would have required the luck of the devil to sail into during dirty weather. It's now marketed as part of the moniker Bay of Fires which covers a stretch of coast from Binalong in the south to Eddystone Point in the north. Blinding white sand stretch out into waters that hold their blue even when it rains, broken by granite outcrops stained with lurid orange lichens. Much of the hillsides folding down to the beaches are still clothed in dry sclerophyll forests, interspersed with casuarina micro-forests, lagoons and creeks.

I walked from the northern end of Cosy Corner back to Binalong one morning, and in the glare of a summer sun remembered my first trip to the area at 15 just as my parents were looking at buying a home in St Helens. Sitting in the family car near the shops, the back streets lined with red flowering gums, Corymbia ficifolia, towering eucalypts down the main street, pastures flat to the bowl of the bay, weather beaten wooden fences leaning out of the grass, the push and puff of a sea breeze, and all the while the boats in motion at anchor, current and tide tugging like children, wanting to pull them away. I had forgotten how visceral these landscapes are. How impossibly beautiful. How beautiful still.